Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson on Wednesday took the stand for the first time in her legal effort to silence a wave of attack ads against her re-election bid.
She offered an unambiguous rebuttal to one of several lines of criticism being run against her.
Goodson said she was one of two justices on the court to oppose a request for a pay increase last year. A recent mailer sent to Arkansas voters alleges that she was the one who asked for a raise of nearly $18,000.
The mailer was sent by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a political outfit based in Washington, D.C., that has supported Goodson's opponent, David Sterling. Sterling is an attorney for the state Department of Human Services.
Goodson filed a defamation suit against the committee earlier last month after the group began airing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of television ads focusing on her acceptance of gifts and campaign donations from trial attorneys -- including a $50,000 Italian vacation that has been cited in repeated attacks over the justice's past two campaigns.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would stop the Republican State Leadership Committee from continuing to air or publish its attacks against Goodson. After an initial hearing Wednesday, that request remains under consideration by U.S. District Court Judge Brian Miller.
The television ads, however, do not mention the pay raise sought by the court in 2017.
The claims regarding the requested raise have come in print material sent through the mail by the committee and the Judicial Crisis Network, another group based in Washington. The most recent mailer by the committee states, "Goodson turned to Arkansas taxpayers to support her lavish lifestyle by asking for an additional $18,000 pay raise."
The raise was in fact requested by Chief Justice Dan Kemp, on behalf of the entire high court. (Only a smaller raise, $3,330, was actually approved and given to the justices. An article Saturday incorrectly stated that the raise was $5,905, which was this year's pay raise.) The request was given to a state commission that considers raises for elected state officials.
Before Wednesday, Goodson had declined to say whether she supported the request for a raise, citing the anonymity of the vote by justices.
During the hearing Wednesday, Goodson took the stand at Little Rock's federal courthouse and was asked by John Tull, a Little Rock attorney representing the Republican State Leadership Committee, how she had voted when she and her colleagues met privately to discuss a raise. Goodson said she and another justice, whom she declined to name, voted against seeking the raise.
To succeed in getting a judge to halt political ads in an ongoing campaign, Goodson not only has to prove that they are false, but that the Republican State Leadership Committee acted recklessly to defame a public official -- also known as the "actual malice" standard -- said Robert Steinbuch, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law.
"She's gotten over the first hurdle," Steinbuch said. "Now she's got to demonstrate that it's harmful and she's got to satisfy the malice standard."
Tull, the attorney for the committee, spent much of the more than four-hour hearing Wednesday submitting and going over evidence that he said proved that Goodson had failed to meet that standard.
That included Goodson's own statement of financial interests showing that she had gone on the expensive trips paid for by friends and donors, as the ads criticize her for doing.
On the stand, Goodson repeated what has been her defense: that she recused from cases directly involving people who gave her gifts, including her husband, attorney John Goodson, and friend W.H. Taylor.
An opinion that Goodson had written in early 2011 favoring Tyson Foods, she noted, had come before she and her husband went on the Italian vacation later that summer paid for by Taylor, who had done work for the Tyson family.
Goodson received a campaign donation from Tyson Foods during her 2010 campaign, but she noted that judicial rules prevent candidates from knowing who their donors are. She said she was unaware of the donation until it came up in court Wednesday.
Tull said the ads merely implied that Goodson favored her donors and pointed to decisions she joined that were generally perceived to favor trial attorneys. And on cross-examination, Goodson conceded that other pieces of bad press may have affected voters' impressions of her.
"Up to this point, there has been no false statement," Tull said. "It is the highest possible standard to try to have a prior removal [of the ads] in this case."
A spokesman for the committee, David James, said Wednesday that the group was done sending out its mailers in the Supreme Court race and that it did not have any other mail ads in the works.
"Courtney Goodson had plenty of opportunity to explain her vote before today," James said in an email. "She certainly didn't deny the other claims in the ad, including the $50,000 gift she received from a campaign donor."
Goodson told reporters after the hearing Wednesday that she had not discussed with her colleagues ahead of time her decision to appear on the stand and to answer questions about the court's pay raise discussions.
Kemp, the chief justice, did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
"I value the confidence of the conversations that the court engages in, but this has just gone too far," Goodson told reporters.
Asked why she chose not to reveal her vote sooner -- after the attack ads first started airing against her before the spring primary -- Goodson said, "I put [the court's] interest in front of mine."
Goodson had similarly filed suit in several Arkansas circuit courts in May seeking to stop broadcasters from airing similar attacks being run then by the Judicial Crisis Network.
She won an initial ruling in Washington County that later had to be reassigned after it was revealed that the judge there had received income from Goodson's husband's law firm. On reassignment, a judge in Pulaski County allowed the ads to continue airing in Northwest Arkansas, while on the same day a different judge agreed to halt the ads in central Arkansas TV markets.
That injunction, by Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, is on appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, where Goodson and four of her colleagues have recused.
Meanwhile Miller, the federal judge overseeing Goodson's current suit against the committee, said he planned to either issue a ruling late Wednesday night or early today.
Goodson will face Sterling in the Supreme Court runoff election Tuesday. Sterling has denied involvement with the committee's ad campaign, though he has not disavowed the ads.
A Section on 11/01/2018
Print Headline: Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Goodson testifies in suit to halt attack ads